Protecting Common Law Rights of the Unionized Worker: Demystifying Section 301 Preemption
Employers are frequently subject to employee lawsuits alleging a tort. Non-unionized employees may seek damages for such conduct by their employers in state court. Unionized employees, however, face the risk that employers will seek to transfer the case to a federal district court in an attempt to immunize tort liability by claiming the complaint is preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (LMRA). Although § 301 remains essentially unchanged from the date of its adoption, judicial confusion over the scope of its preemptive effect frequently has broadened an employer’s ability to defeat state tort claims by its employees in the early stages of litigation with a motion to dismiss. As a result of this evolution and accompanying confusion, the common law rights of unionized workers have been unfairly circumscribed simply because their union entered into a collective bargaining agreement with their employer. Neither the statute’s framers nor the Supreme Court opinions which delineated § 301’s impact intended such an expansive result in favor of management. A proper understanding of § 301 and its preemptive effect produces a judicial test which protects the common law rights of unionized workers while still ensuring that collectively bargained agreements will be enforced uniformly throughout the country.